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Sanitation Work Offers Middle-Class Incomes for Some, but Comes With Dangers

Robert Meehan Jr. in an undated photograph (New York Times)
Robert Meehan Jr. in an undated photograph (New York Times)

By Rachel Swarns

On the last day of his life, Robert Meehan Jr. shook himself awake around 2 p.m. He was a sanitation worker for a private company, gearing up for a grueling nocturnal run of trash pickups from commercial sites on Staten Island.

But the night shift wasn’t the only thing on his mind. It was Nov. 12, 2014, and Thanksgiving was just a couple of weeks away. So he padded into the living room in his plaid pajamas to talk to his sister.

“He asked if I was having Thanksgiving at my house,” recalled his sister, Tabatha Sajeva, who had been sharing her house in Hazlet, N.J., with him for about five years, off and on, ever since he and his wife split up. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’m having Thanksgiving. I’m always having Thanksgiving.’ ”

Then she grinned. Was her 40-year-old brother hinting that he was finally bringing a girlfriend home for Thanksgiving dinner?

Mr. Meehan didn’t talk about his work at Flag Container Services that afternoon and his sister didn’t ask. He had been at the company for only a few months. It was an “in-between job,” she said, the kind of biding-your-time work that keeps you going while you dream of something better.

Ms. Sajeva figured they would talk the next morning, after his shift was over. She had no way of knowing then that her brother was never coming home.